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The unfair questions Muslims face every day

posted on: Dec 31, 2015

Elias Baumgarten

Detroit Free Press


It must be tiresome to have to explain, after every terrorist incident: “I have nothing to do with this. I am innocent. I feel just the way you do”.

Someone could market a T-shirt for Muslims to wear: “Of course, I condemn it.”

I’m a Jew who teaches in Dearborn. It was right after the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in 1994, when a Jewish settler in Hebron, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Muslim worshippers. I was invited to have dinner with a local Arabic friend, Maya, and her family.

To them I was “Maya’s Jewish friend.”  The first thing her sister asks me is, “So what do you think of what Baruch Goldstein did?” Maya seemed slightly embarrassed and started joking sarcastically, “Oh, he thinks it’s great.” But the question was OK with me. It came from unfamiliarity, not hostility. To the family, at that time, I was just a Jew, possibly the first Jew ever to eat in their home. What other Jews did they know about? Supporters of Israel. Settlers who chant “death to Arabs” in the West Bank. People who have a lot of influence in Congress.

I didn’t have a made-to-order T-shirt. Jews in America are not, any longer, used to being in the uncomfortable position that Muslims face so often. So it was easy for me to be a flesh and blood Jew who passionately condemns the massacre of innocent Palestinians. Of course, it is totally unfair for Muslims to be expected to condemn every crazy act by a violent jihadist. To be treated as mysterious strangers when they’ve long been part of the fabric of our society. To learn that even repeated condemnation of terrorism by Muslim leaders hasn’t erased the doubt and suspicion that too many individual Americans still feel. But I hope Muslims will nonetheless embrace the chance to be educators for puzzled and frightened Americans. I also hope that their sons and daughters won’t need to do that.

Sadly, we still live in a country where many people think about Muslims only after some terrible act in the news. Too many Americans make little distinction between the Taliban, which burns girls’ schools, and Iran, which educates girls and women. And when they see an American woman wearing the hijab, they don’t think “premed student” or “member of a hospital ethics committee.”

But that is what I think because I’ve taught at the University of Michigan-Dearborn for 43 years and have often visited Muslim-majority countries. Before I came here, I was totally ignorant of Arab and Muslim culture. It amuses and embarrasses me to remember that I actually wondered whether I would be safe going to a local Arab restaurant. But most of us who live or work in Dearborn know Arabs and Muslims (and know Muslims who are not Arabs and Arabs who are not Muslims). They are our colleagues, our bosses, our students.

That’s why right after GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump started talking about registering Muslims and barring them from entering the U.S., more than 300 of my university colleagues promptly signed on to a statement expressing solidarity with Muslims. The list includes professors and staff, including our chief of police and director of public safety, who also wrote to me to express his strong support. Knowing actual Muslims explains the difference between my colleagues’ reaction and that of the Trump supporters who chillingly shout “USA, USA, USA,” confusing genuine patriotism with the kind of ignorant jingoism that has elected other dangerous demagogues.

If we are going to preserve our hope for this great country, we’d best treat those responses as the result of fear and ignorance, a correctable ignorance rather than an irredeemable hatred. We need to bring everyday Muslims into the lives of Americans who are frightened and uninformed. We desperately need the help of the news media to convey the stories of Muslim immigrants and the sons and daughters and grandchildren of immigrants, stories that powerfully convey what makes America special.

Then there won’t be any need for those T-shirts.

Elias Baumgarten is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.